Born August 4, 1901 (New Orleans, Louisiana)
Died July 6, 1971 (Long Island, New York)
Celebrated as one of the greatest jazz performers of all time, Louis Armstrong had a career spanning more than fifty years, from the 1910s to the 1960s. A supremely talented, versatile trumpet player with an unforgettable, gravelly singing voice, Armstrong was popular all over the world, especially during the last twenty-five years of his life. It was during the Roaring Twenties, though, that he played a vital role in the development of jazz, the unique new musical form that was setting the decade on fire. Armstrong's innovative approach, along with his ability to express through his music both deep sorrow and boundless joy, secured his place in history.
An early interest in Dixieland music
Armstrong was born into poverty in New Orleans, Louisiana, on August 4, 1901 (he would later give his birth date as July 4, 1900). His parents were divorced, and for some of his childhood he lived with his grandmother and some with his father (along with his father's new family). His best years, however, were spent with his mother and younger sister...
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Bryan, William Jennings
Born March 19, 1860 (Salem, Illinois)
Died July 26, 1925 (Dayton, Ohio)
Lawyer and politician
During his long career in law and politics, including three unsuccessful bids for the presidency, William Jennings Bryan gained fame for both his speech-making skills and his passion for social reform. Nicknamed "The Great Commoner" due to his lifelong dedication to ordinary U.S. citizens, Bryan was also a religious fundamentalist (a very conservative kind of Christian who believes that the stories found in the Bible are literally true, not just illustrations or myths). In 1925 Bryan waged the final battle of his life when he took part in the famous Monkey Trial. The case involved Tennessee schoolteacher John Scopes, who had been charged with breaking a law that had prohibited the teaching of the scientific theory of evolution in public schools. As part of the team that prosecuted Scopes, Bryan stood for traditional values in a trial that pitted the ways of the past against the ideas and beliefs of the modern world.
A strict upbringing
Born in Salem, Illinois, in 1860, Bryan was the oldest son of Silas Bryan, a prosperous Illinois farmer...
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Born January 7, 1899 (Brooklyn, New York)
Died January 25, 1947 (Palm Island, Florida)
Organized crime leader
Al Capone was one of the most notorious criminals of all time. During the Roaring Twenties, he gained fame both for the success of his criminal operation and for the violent way it was built and maintained. Capone became a symbol for the lawlessness of this decade, when Prohibition (the constitutional ban on the manufacture and sale of alcoholic beverages that was intended to improve society) seemed to lead directly to murder and corruption. With his bulky body and facial features, his slick suits and hats, his money, power, and disregard for the law, Capone remains a popular icon of the 1920s.
Growing up tough in Brooklyn
Alphonse "Al" Capone was born in the Brooklyn area of New York City in January 1899. He was the fourth of nine children born to parents who had immigrated to the United States from Italy. Capone's father was a barber and his mother a seamstress. They were a hardworking family with no apparent criminal connections or tendencies. The neighborhood, however, was tough, and Capone became involved at a very early
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Born April 16, 1889 (London, England)
Died December 25, 1977 (Vevey, Switzerland)
Born April 4, 1895 (Piqua, Kansas)
Died February 1, 1966 (Woodland Hills, California)
Born April 20, 1893 (Burchard, Nebraska)
Died March 3, 1971 (Hollywood, California)
Actors, film directors, filmmakers
Many people who were young during the Roaring Twenties remember with special fondness the experience of going to the movies to see the great clowns of the silent films (motion pictures did not include sound technology until the late 1920s; before that, any dialog appeared as written text on the screen). These comic actors helped to set the tone of outrageous fun that characterized the decade. In many cases, their antics not only produced smiles, but helped to express the mixed feelings that many people had about the amazing, changing, and sometimes confusing world around them. The leading comedy star was undoubtedly Charlie Chaplin, who won lasting, worldwide recognition and adoration through his Little Tramp character. Close behind was Buster Keaton, who met each hair-raising situation with a deadpan (expressionless) face, and Harold Lloyd, whose character wore trademark round glasses and a straw hat....
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Born July 4, 1872 (Plymouth Notch, Vermont)
Died January 5, 1933 (Northampton, Massachusetts)
President Calvin Coolidge presided over the Roaring Twenties, a decade when a thriving U.S. economy was sometimes called Coolidge Prosperity. Thrust into the presidency when Warren G. Harding (1865–1923; served 1921–23; see entry) died suddenly, Coolidge soon had to confront several scandals involving members of Harding's administration. His quick, firm response helped to restore the public's faith in the nation's highest office. A man of few words, he was known as "Silent Cal," Coolidge was also a leader of little action. Deeply conservative, he believed that government should stay as far out of business affairs as possible. Although some blame the laissez-faire (hands-off), probusiness policies of Coolidge's presidency for the stock market crash (which occurred after he left office), the majority of U.S. citizens approved of his ideas at the time.
Hard work and thrift
Coolidge's ancestors arrived from Great Britain in the seventeenth century, and one of them served as a soldier in the American Revolution (1775–83). The future president was
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Born April 18, 1857 (Kinsman, Ohio)
Died March 13, 1938 (Chicago, Illinois)
Clarence Darrow was one of the most famous lawyers in U.S. history. Always a strong defender of the underdog and a winner of seemingly lost causes, Darrow played a leading role in some of the most extraordinary courtroom dramas of the 1920s. A lifelong opponent of capital punishment, he used testimony based on the new, modern science of psychology in a successful attempt to save murderers Nathan Leopold (1904–1971) and Richard Loeb (1905–1936) from execution. In the famous court battle known as the Monkey Trial, which involved the clash of religious and scientific views of the origin of humanity, Darrow defended the right of educator John Scopes (1900–1970) to teach his students about the theory of evolution.
A young Ohio lawyer
Born in the northeastern Ohio town of Kinsman in April 1857, Darrow was the son of Amirus and Emily Darrow. His father had once been a Unitarian minister but after losing his religious faith became a carpenter and furniture...
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Born June 24, 1895 (Manassa, Colorado)
Died May 31, 1983 (New York City, New York)
Boxer and businessman
Jack Dempsey was one of the first great sports heroes and a popular figure of the Roaring Twenties, which has been called the Golden Age of Sports. He joined the ranks of other leading athletes, such as baseball's George Herman "Babe" Ruth (1895–1948; see entry), football's Red Grange (1903–1991) and golf's Bobby Jones (1902–1971), who were admired and even worshipped by the public. Between 1919 and 1926 Dempsey reigned as the heavyweight boxing champion of the world, and for those years he seemed to embody the 1920s passion for success in all kinds of human endeavors. Even in defeat, Dempsey captured the imagination and love of the U.S. people, who would long remember his ferocious fighting style and unbeatable spirit.
A tough young brawler
William Harrison Dempsey, called Harry by his family, was one of eleven children born to Hyrum and Mary Dempsey. With their children in tow, the couple moved between Colorado and Utah, an area that, at the turn of...
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Du Bois, W.E.B.
Born February 23, 1869 (Great Barrington, Massachusetts)
Died August 27, 1963 (Accra, Ghana)
Civil rights activist, educator, writer
W.E.B. Du Bois was the most celebrated African American leader of the firsthalf of the twentieth century. A prolific writer who produced twenty books and more than one hundred articles and essays, he was one of the first to speak out in favor of full and unconditional rights for blacks. During the Roaring Twenties Du Bois played an important role in the Harlem Renaissance, the period of cultural expression and achievement that was centered in New York City's African American community. As editor of The Crisis, the journal of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), Du Bois provided a place for the talented young writers and artists of the period to publish their work. In addition, he made The Crisis into an important forum for black journalism and often used it to express his own intellectual and political views about the ongoing struggle for equality. During the 1920s, Du Bois clashed with Marcus Garvey (1887–1940), the...
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Fitzgerald, F. Scott
Born September 24, 1896 (St. Paul, Minnesota)
Died December 21, 1940 (Los Angeles, California)
Novelist and short story writer
F. Scott Fitzgerald was probably the most gifted and insightful literary chronicler of the Roaring Twenties. It was he who, in the title of one of his collections of short stories, coined the term "Jazz Age" to describe this decade of exuberance, creativity, and sometimes troubling change. Along with his glamorous wife, Zelda, Fitzgerald himself lived the life of excess for which the period is known. His was a tragic story in many ways, yet he also produced lasting literary masterpieces. The best of these is undoubtedly his novel The Great Gatsby, which has become a classic of U.S. fiction, but his numerous, finely crafted short stories are also acclaimed.
An ambitious young writer
Francis Scott Fitzgerald was born in St. Paul, Minnesota, in 1896. His father, Edward Fitzgerald, was a native of Maryland, and his mother, Mollie McQuillan Fitzgerald, was from a wealthy local family; he had one younger sister. When his son was two years old, the elder Fitzgerald moved his family to the East Coast after accepting a...
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Born July 30, 1863 (Springwells, Michigan)
Died April 7, 1947 (Dearborn, Michigan)
The important role of the automobile in contemporary U.S. culture really began in the Roaring Twenties. It was during this decade that owning an automobile began to seem like a necessity, for it allowed freedom and convenience and affected such issues as where people worked and lived and what they did for fun. The man who was largely responsible for this trend was Henry Ford. Rising from a Michigan farm boy to become one of the richest people in the world, Ford was a popular hero to millions. He revolutionized the infant automobile industry by producing a reliable car that a wide variety of people could afford to buy. Yet Ford was a man of personal contradictions. He paid his workers more and cut their hours, but he also forced them to follow his own rules of morality and behavior, and he fiercely resisted their efforts to unionize (join labor unions, which allowed workers to negotiate for higher wages and better working conditions).
A young engineer
Born on a farm in Springwells, Michigan (near what is now Dearborn), Henry Ford was the first of six children born...
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Born September 26, 1898 (Brooklyn, New York)
Died July 11, 1937 (Hollywood, California)
Composer and pianist
George Gershwin was one of the best-known and most important figures in the musical history of the United States. He played a key role in the Roaring Twenties, for his music played an important part in this exciting decade. Writing for the Broadway stage, Gershwin (along with his brother Ira [1896–1983], who provided the lyrics) kept people humming along to such songs as "I Got Rhythm," "Let's Call the Whole Thing Off," and "They Can't Take That Away from Me." In fact, many of the songs the Gershwins made popular in the 1920s are still sung and enjoyed today. Gershwin's more serious compositions, especially his most famous, the acclaimed Rhapsody in Blue, combined the older traditions of classical and operatic music with elements of the new musical forms of jazz and blues. Gershwin helped to establish and promote these uniquely American contributions to the world's musical heritage.
The talented child of immigrants
Part of what...
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Harding, Warren G.
Born November 2, 1865 (Corsica, Ohio)
Died August 2, 1923 (San Francisco, California)
Warren G. Harding was elected to the presidency on the promise of returning the nation to what he called "normalcy" after the turmoil of World War I (1914–18). His term in office, which lasted from 1921 until his unexpected death in 1923, ushered in not only the general economic prosperity that characterized the Roaring Twenties but also the dominance of the Republican Party during this decade. Charming and personable, Harding was much loved by the ordinary people of the United States during his presidency, but history has not been as kind. His reputation was marred by revelations after his death that his administration had been riddled with corruption.
Finding his way
Warren Gamaliel Harding was the eldest of eight children born to George Tyron Harding, a Civil War veteran, a farmer, and a doctor, and Phoebe Dickerson Harding, a gentle, very religious woman who eventually went into medical practice with her...
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Born August 10, 1874 (West Branch, Iowa)
Died October 20, 1964 (New York, New York)
Herbert Hoover began the Roaring Twenties as secretary of commerce under President Warren G. Harding (1865–1923; served 1921–23; see entry). By the end of the decade, he had himself been elected president. Although he was much admired by the public in the years leading up to the 1929 stock market crash, Hoover's reputation took a steep downturn as the Great Depression (the economic crisis that would last until approximately 1939) took hold of the nation. Despite the considerable achievements of his earlier career, Hoover was faulted for not doing more to ease the suffering experienced by so many during this period.
A determined young man
Herbert Clark Hoover was born into a Quaker family (a religious sect that is also known as the Society of Friends) in West Branch, Iowa, located about 25 miles (40 kilometers) from Iowa City. His father, a blacksmith named Jesse Hoover, died of a heart attack when Hoover was six. Three years later, his mother, Hulda Hoover, died of typhoid (a serious infectious disease). The couple's...
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Hurston, Zora Neale
Born January 7, 1891 (Eatonville, Florida)
Died January 28, 1960 (Fort Pierce, Florida)
Author and folklorist
Zora Neale Hurston was a key figure in the Harlem Renaissance, one of the most important cultural movements of the Roaring Twenties. This explosion of African American achievement in the written, visual, and performing arts was centered in the black community of Harlem in New York City. Hurston was part of a group of younger writers, whose members included Langston Hughes (1902–1967), Claude McKay (1890–1948), and Jean Toomer (1894–1967). This group's works helped to celebrate and explore African American life. Although Hurston is best known for works written in later decades (especially her novel Their Eyes Were Watching God), her vibrant personality and sense of humor made her a popular and vital participant in the Harlem Renaissance. The short stories that she published during this period revealed her knowledge and appreciation of the black folk tradition that she had enjoyed since childhood. She was among the first to make use of this rich resource, through both her fiction and her work as a...
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Born February 7, 1885 (Sauk Centre, Minnesota)
Died January 10, 1951 (Rome, Italy)
Sinclair Lewis may have been the most popular novelist of the Roaring Twenties. In such best-selling works as Main Street and Babbitt, he captured many details of daily life while exposing the dullness, conformity, and hypocrisy of average, middle-class citizens of the United States. Part of what made Lewis such an effective chronicler of this era was his great skill in imitating the speech of ordinary people. Some critics felt that his harsh social criticism reflected his internal struggle between a desire for respectability and a yearning for deeper meaning and discovery.
A restless wanderer and writer
Almost all of Sinclair Lewis's fiction features characters and settings drawn from the midwestern setting he knew so well. Born Harry Sinclair Lewis in the village of Sauk Centre, Minnesota, he was one of three sons of a physician. His mother died when he was six, and his father soon remarried. Lewis remembered his father, who...
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Lindbergh, Charles A.
Born February 4, 1902 (Detroit, Michigan)
Died August 26, 1974 (Maui, Hawaii)
One of the most popular heroes of the Roaring Twenties, Charles Lindbergh caught the world's imagination with his flight from New York City to Paris, flying solo across the Atlantic Ocean in a little less than thirty-four hours. A pioneer in the brand-new field of aviation, Lindbergh helped to transform airplane travel from the realm of daredevil stunt flyers and military pilots to a common mode of transportation for ordinary people. To the people of the 1920s, he seemed to embody both the traditional values of courage and self-reliance and the technological miracles of the future.
A boy in love with airplanes
Charles Augustus Lindbergh was born in Detroit, Michigan, but he was raised mostly in Minnesota, where his paternal grandfather had settled after immigrating from Sweden. His father, Charles August Lindbergh, was a farmer and...
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McPherson, Aimee Semple
Born October 9, 1890 (Ingersoll, Canada)
Died September 27, 1944 (Oakland, California)
Evangelist and church founder
The Roaring Twenties was a decade of major changes in the United States. A population shift had occurred, with more people now living in urban than rural areas. Amazing technological advances like automobiles, airplanes, and electrical appliances had brought convenience and a faster pace to daily life. These changes were exciting to some people, but others found them troubling and unsettling. Some turned to traditional religious belief for reassurance, leading to a surge in the popularity of evangelistic religious leaders (those who seek to convert others to their own faith). The most famous of these was Aimee Semple McPherson, a dynamic woman who attracted thousands of followers with her dramatic preaching and comforting message of salvation. At a time when few women took prominent roles in organized religion, McPherson founded her own church and overcame controversy to attract thousands of devoted followers.
A dynamic young religious leader
Aimee Semple McPherson was born Aimee Elizabeth...
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Born December 16, 1901 (Philadelphia, Pennsylvania)
Died November 15, 1978 (New York City, New York)
Margaret Mead's pioneering studies documenting the cultural influences on human development and behavior made her the most famous anthropologist (a scientist who studies human origins, cultures, and societies) of the twentieth century. It was during the Roaring Twenties that Mead produced her most famous work, Coming of Age in Samoa (1928). This book was based on Mead's fieldwork in that Pacific Island nation, where she lived with and studied a group of teenage girls. She found that Samoans experienced adolescence as a much less stressful transition to adulthood than did teenagers in the United States or Europe. Controversial due both to its sexual subject matter and its conclusions, Coming of Age in Samoa was a best-seller in an era when some found the major advances occurring in science, technology, and sociology troubling. Both Mead's work and her distinguished career, which began at a time when few women were able to reach the top of any professional field, were revolutionary.
Developing a passion...
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Mencken, Henry Louis H.L.
Born September 12, 1880 (Baltimore, Maryland)
Died January 29, 1956 (Baltimore, Maryland)
Writer and editor
Henry Louis (H.L.) Mencken was one of the most influential writers and editors of the twentieth century. Although he lived his entire life in the eastern coastal city of Baltimore, Maryland, his reach extended to every corner of the nation. An incredibly productive newspaper and magazine writer as well as an author of nonfiction books, Mencken produced biting social commentary on many aspects of life in the United States. He criticized not only politicians and religious leaders but also those ignorant, intolerant members of the vast U.S. middle class that he termed the "booboisie." Mencken was at the height of his career and popularity during the Roaring Twenties and is recognized as a major voice of the period. He informed, entertained, and provoked his readers, helping them to understand and judge the trends, issues, and events of this exciting but confusing time.
The "maddest, gladdest" days
Henry Louis Mencken was born in Baltimore, Maryland, in 1880. He was the oldest of four children born to parents of proud...
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Millay, Edna St. Vincent
Born February 22, 1892 (Rockland, Maine)
Died October 19, 1950 (Austerlitz, New York)
Poet and dramatist
Recognized as one of the most accomplished poets of the twentieth century, Edna St. Vincent Millay was an especially famous and popular cultural figure during the Roaring Twenties. Her work was widely admired by critics as well as a varied audience. Millay became a kind of spokesperson for the post-World War I generation of young people, especially women, who were expressing their rebellion against tradition and their insistence on freedom of thought and behavior. In her days as a young poet in New York's Greenwich Village artistic community, she embodied the new, sexually liberated woman of the period.
A budding talent
Edna St.Vincent Millay was born in Rockland, Maine, but spent most of her childhood living with her mother, Cora Buzzelle Millay, and two sisters in the nearby town of Camden. Millay was fondly called "Vincent" by her family and friends because her parents had planned to name their son Vincent....
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Born November 15, 1887 (Sun Prairie, Wisconsin)
Died March 6, 1986 (Santa Fe, New Mexico)
The work of Georgia O'Keeffe ranks among the finest art of the twentieth century, but it is also loved by, and accessible to, a wide variety of people. A strong, independent person, O'Keeffe resisted being labeled as a female artist, preferring to be considered simply an artist. Similarly, her strikingly original works refuse to be categorized. It was during the Roaring Twenties that O'Keeffe, with the help of the famous photographer and gallery owner Alfred Stieglitz (1864–1946), first captured the public's attention with some of her most notable paintings. These include the enlarged, sharply focused, and richly colored views of flowers for which she is perhaps best known.
An artist from an early age
Born in the rural community of Sun Prairie, Wisconsin, Georgia O'Keeffe was the second of seven children born to Francis O'Keeffe, a farmer of Irish descent, and Ida O'Keeffe, whohad grown up in a rich, cultured European family. O'Keeffe's mother encouraged her children's interest in art and set...
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Born July 7, 1906 (Mobile, Alabama)
Died June 5, 1982 (Kansas City, Missouri)
During the prosperous Roaring Twenties, more U.S. citizens than ever before had extra income to spend on entertainment. Many were purchasing tickets to sporting events, and athletes like baseball's Babe Ruth (1895–1948; see entry) and boxing's Jack Dempsey (1895–1983; see entry) were becoming major celebrities. Meanwhile, the segregation (separation of white and black people) of U.S. society, which applied to professional sports as well as other areas, meant that African Americans had to find their own heroes. Fortunately, the Negro baseball leagues that were formed at the beginning of the 1920s provided plenty of stars to thrill black fans. Perhaps the brightest of these was pitcher Satchel Paige. Although many of his major accomplishments occurred in later decades (and Paige lived long enough to play in the Major Leagues after they were integrated), it was during the 1920s that his career got off to its brilliant start.
Young, tall, and talented
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Born August 22, 1893 (West End, New Jersey)
Died June 7, 1967 (New York, New York)
Short-story writer, poet, dramatist, and critic
Dorothy Parker's sharply witty voice was one of the most memorable of the Roaring Twenties. She was a member of the talented circle of writers and critics who gathered every week at New York City's Algonquin Hotel to trade gossip and humorous comments. Parker would later prefer, however, to be known as the author of insightful criticism, moving short stories, and deceptively light verse. As someone who did not express herself in the polite, gracious manner expected of women, Parker embodied the shift in attitudes about female behavior that began in the 1920s. She would become a role model for younger women seeking success in the male-dominated realms of literature and journalism.
A sharp tongue and a talent for writing
Dorothy Parker was born Dorothy Rothschild in West End, New Jersey, a suburb of New York City. Her father was a wealthy Jewish businessman and her mother a Protestant of Scottish heritage who died when Parker was four. In the years to come, Parker would describe her mixed ethnic background in negative...
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Ruth, George Herman "Babe" Jr.
Born February 6, 1895 (Baltimore, Maryland)
Died August 17, 1948 (New York, New York)
The Roaring Twenties was a decade of heroes. In search of proof that human effort still mattered in a time of great change and technological advances, the U.S. public was eager for celebrities. Aviator Charles Lindbergh (1902–1974; see entry) earned the public's admiration for flying solo over the Atlantic Ocean, and movie stars like Douglas Fairbanks (1883–1939) and Rudolph Valentino (1895–1926) caused women to swoon. But in a decade that many called the "Golden Age of Sports," it was George Herman "Babe" Ruth who captured the imagination of sports fans. He is credited with having transformed baseball from a game of bunts, pitching, and base running to a more exciting realm of long balls and spectacular home runs. An athlete of dazzling talent and a man with very human weaknesses, Ruth won the hearts of people all over the nation and the world.
A "bad kid" makes good
George Herman Ruth Jr. was born in Baltimore, Maryland, to George Herman Ruth Sr. and Katherine Schamberger Ruth, who...
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Born September 14, 1879 (Corning, New York)
Died September 6, 1966 (Tucson, Arizona)
Outspoken in her defense of women's rights to control their reproductive lives, Margaret Sanger was a leading founder of the U.S. movement to make birth control widely available. It was during the Roaring Twenties—a time of great social change, when sexual matters were starting to be more openly discussed, and women began demanding the same sexual freedoms that men had always enjoyed—that Sanger opened the first physician-directed birth control clinic in the United States. Although Sanger was not the first or only advocate of family planning, she was certainly among the most energetic and dedicated. Fighting opposition from government and church leaders, as well as public opinion, she helped to change attitudes about birth control.
Influenced by mother's life and death
Sanger was born Margaret Louisa Higgins into a large Irish American family in Corning, New York. Her father, Michael Hennessey Higgins, was a stonecutter with...
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